A comprehensive study examines the attitudes of Jews in Israel regarding the question “Who is a Jew?”


The Rufeisen ruling, and the Shalit ruling issued many years later, are milestones in the development of Israeli philosophy regarding the “Who is a Jew” issue. However, as we have noted, there is a significant gap between legal rulings or governmental policy, which aim to regulate a specific issue by virtue of their authority, and questions pertaining to how all Jews feel with regard to affiliation, identity, and identification. It is clear that on issues that directly relate to state policy, state institutions are the bodies authorized to determine guiding principles. But on the question of broader authority to decide on affiliation with the Jewish collective, there is no such clarity. To this question, a few theoretical answers may therefore be proposed.

1. There are fixed rules that are decisive on this issue. In such cases, it is still necessary to determine who is qualified to investigate whether someone meets the conditions. But this is fundamentally a technical question, one of set rules. For example: let us suppose it has been decided that someone with a Jewish mother is also a Jew. All that then needs to be done is to find out whether the mother is indeed Jewish, and the question is merely one of who does the checking and confirms the information.

2. There are rules that change from time to time, and the question is who is authorized to change them and according to what criteria. For example: many now agree, due to the modern world’s changing norms and a change in outlook among a large segment of the Jewish people, that those who have a Jewish father should now be considered Jews if they so desire. This is a decision that was made by the Reform movement in the US during the 1980s, but it has not been accepted by all streams of Judaism. The question of whether the Reform movement was authorized to make such a decision is a matter of controversy.

3. There are no agreed-upon rules, and it is doubtful whether a consensus could be reached on rules regarding who is a Jew. The question, rather, is that of the spectrum of possibilities that lie within the range of the Jewish people’s consensus, and who draws the boundaries of that range? For instance: Is the person in the earlier example, recognized as Jewish by the Reform movement, also accepted as a Jew by the Jewish collective in some way or other, or can no consensus be reached on this issue either?

The Authority question has at least four decision-making levels.

1. Personal level of decision, each person for themself, both with regard to who s/he is, and with regard to how s/he identifies others.

2. Vaguer level of Jewish institutions with a broad, sometimes global, sphere of influence, which include organizations such as the Jewish Agency, Jewish Federations and the like, that aspire to shape policy not specific to a community but rather to the Jewish people.

3. Basic communal level, each community according to its size (synagogue, Jews in a given city, Jews belonging to a particular movement, etc.), and according to how it defines those whom it accepts as Jews and how it defines their affiliation.

4. The State of Israel for whom decisions are fundamentally different for two reasons:

a. It is the only one of the four institutions that is not voluntary. Citizens of Israel are subject to the state’s decisions and authority, whether they want to be or not.

b. It is the only institution whose decision-making processes are clear and regulated. There is no theoretical difficulty in deciding via the authorized bodies (the Knesset, the cabinet, the courts) what the rules are for determining affiliation with the group that the state defines as the Jewish collective. Of course, the state’s definition will not necessarily be accepted by all Jews, but it will be binding on all issues subject to state authority.

Israeli public debate on the “Who is a Jew” question has generally focused on the fourth level of decision-making: the formal level, that of Israeli state decisions. This is both because the question has been placed on the agenda in the context of public controversies or proposed legislation aimed at institutional regulation of the issues arising from it, and because this is the level at which matters can most easily be clarified, as it is oriented toward the legal-bureaucratic end of things, rather than the identity-investigation end.

This, for example, is how an Israeli jurist established a clear connection between the state’s position on an institutional question and the deep and fundamental issue of modern Jewish identity: Jewishness is a religion. And yet, from the time the Law of Return of 1950 determined that every Jew has the right to come to this country as an oleh, and from the time the Law was amended in 1970 to state “a Jew is a person who was born of a Jewish mother or has become converted to Judaism and who is not a member of another religion and can receive Israeli citizenship”, the state has effectively been the one to determine who is a Jew.”26

None of the terms or expressions used in this brief passage are straightforward. Is Jewishness per se a religion? We have already seen that most Jews do not view Religion as the main component of Jewishness. Even if we assume that the court or the state does regard Judaism as a religion (and that is not the case), this does not mean that the opinion of the court/state outweighs that of the rest of the people, in terms of making an authoritative decision. Furthermore: does the state actually determine who is a Jew? The answer to this question is also negative.

The state actually determines who will be considered a Jew for purposes of definition in a given matter. Who is a Jew for purposes of the Law of Return, marriage, registration, or any other issue in which the state has an interest and a need for definitions. But this does not constitute deciding on the question of “who is a Jew” but rather on a much more limited question relating to specific issues that the state has chosen to define as pertaining to Jewishness.27

It would, of course, be possible to decide that this determination is also what defines who is a Jew generally, but that is a decision that the state itself has no interest in making, if only because most Jews are not its citizens, and it would be a highly controversial decision that would probably be best left in the hands of other institutions.

Justice Moshe Zilberg, sitting on the Supreme Court panel that deliberated on the Shalit affair (the controversy over recognition of Captain Binyamin Shalit’s children, whose mother was not Jewish, as Jews28), gave colorful expression to this view when he called the issue “A shoe that is bigger than all of our feet, and even of the collective foot of all of the state’s inhabitants.” He did, of course, ultimately render a decision, but only because “the die was cast – the application was submitted – and we are no longer free to avoid addressing it.” That is, the Court has no choice but to provide remedy to petitioners even on issues whose natural place is not the court.

In any event, when we examine the responses to our questionnaire, we have to consider the possibility that they were given with reference to various possible strata of the question. When one of the respondents tells us that a Jew is someone whose mother is a Jew, s/he may mean that this, in their view, is correct in an identity context, but s/he may also mean that this is how it should be in a formal context. Or, to use another example, when a respondent states that the only form of conversion s/he regards as valid is Orthodox conversion, s/he may mean that, in their view, the state should not recognize any other form of conversion, or s/he may mean that they themselves do not regard those who undergo non-Orthodox conversion as Jewish.

The possibilities can also be set forth as follows:

• Are those whom you consider to be Jews those whom the state should consider to be Jews?

• Those whose friends should consider them as Jews?

• Those whom you would agree to include in a synagogue minyan (prayer quorum)?

Each of these interpretations leads to a slightly different way of understanding the survey responses, and even if, in drafting the questions, an effort was made to clarify that the study aims to illuminate issues of identity, as opposed to formal-legal issues, we must admit that in some of the cases we have no means of knowing exactly what the respondents meant.

Individual Authority

A hidden assumption supports this study, namely that the decisions of Jews as individuals are important in terms of setting criteria for Jewishness. Those who do not feel this way (and a few such responses were received, though not many), may decide not to participate in the survey, for fear of creating the impression that they accept this hidden assumption, which may contradict their assumption that the authority lies in other hands (the state, the rabbis, the Jewish Agency, whoever). Beyond this hidden assumption, we also included questions in the study that could testify to the importance that participants attach to the opinions of the Jews themselves, versus the views of authoritative entities above the level of the individual. Among other things, the array of fictional characters we presented included several who made a personal decision, and we examined whether their decisions were accepted by other Jews. We also explicitly asked about the possibility that a personal decision could be what determines a person’s Jewishness.

An over two-thirds majority of the participants do not accept the idea that people can decide for themselves, with no external criteria, whether they are Jews. The only sector in which there is broad acceptance of such a possibility, among half of the respondents, is the secular sector. We can see in this both an answer to the concrete question about self-definition’s validity as a test of Jewishness, and an answer to questions about several fictional characters. One example is that of Miriam, an athlete who lives in Israel, has won an Olympic medal for the country, and wants to be recognized as Jew, but without converting. A substantial majority of all Jews (65%) do not see Miriam as Jewish. However, among the secular respondents, about half (48%) view her as Jewish, versus a smaller group (41%) who do not accept her Jewishness. The rest have no opinion.

This gap between secular and non-secular Jews does not stem directly from their understanding of the Jewish question, but rather from the strong emphasis placed by secular society on the right of all individuals to self-definition. This gap is highly visible in the context of Jewishness, just as it is visible in the context of defining gender identity.

Conditions of Change

In the “Who is a Jew” project we can see different and sometimes conflicting approaches, both toward the Jewish-establishing criteria themselves (fixed or varying, and subject to change by whom), and toward the entities that aspire to make decisions on the matter (from the individual to the state). On this score, the wider Jewish collective is no different from expert groups of various kinds that have tried to propose frameworks for decision-making, but have never reached points of consensus that would be accepted either by all of their members or by the public at large. This is true of voluntary forums that have addressed the “Who is a Jew” question, as well as of various professional committees, and the courts. The Shalit ruling, which embodied focused legal attention to the “who is a Jew” question, ultimately caused the issuing authority to be diverted from “who is a Jew” to “who is a convert” (the matter having been decided by the legislative branch). A question that remained open to recurrent and point-specific ruling by the courts.

In any case, only a small number of all Jews who responded to the survey, hold the view that favors fixed rules that are not subject to change, and only a few felt that the issue of authority had already been decided in a non-controversial manner.

The following is a marginal example of this point, which we see as reflecting the general situation: A substantial majority of the ultra-Orthodox respondents feel that the main component of Jewishness is Ethnicity (65%). All these respondents feel that Ethnicity means having a Jewish mother. On this point there is broad consensus among the ultra-Orthodox. Moreover: nearly all of the ultra-Orthodox feel that conversion is possible, and that conversion means Orthodox conversion (97%). The question of authority would, in any case, seem relatively simple where the ultra-Orthodox are concerned. The ultra-Orthodox feel that the decision about who is a Jew belongs to the Orthodox rabbis.

Yet even this opinion requires clarification: Who is the Orthodox rabbi whose decision is valid? On this question, which is one of authority, there is no consensus. A quarter of the ultra-Orthodox accept any Orthodox conversion, while others accept only conversions by the Chief Rabbinate, or say that they accept “only some conversions.”29 That is: even within a group whose views on the chief identity component are relatively homogeneous, the authority question remains not fully resolved.

This situation will remain to a much greater degree if and when the conversion bill proposed by the former Minister of Religious Services, Matan Kahana is passed. It appears that the bill pertains only to conversions accepted by the Orthodox Jewish society as a whole, but in reality it puts the authority question to the test. The large Israeli religious/ultra-Orthodox population that opposes the proposed legislation does not accept the government’s authority to decentralize the institution of conversion which, at present, is concentrated, until such time as the legislation is passed, in the hands of the Chief Rabbinate.

A significant majority of the ultra-Orthodox feel that the rules establishing affiliation with the Jewish collective are identical in Israel and outside it. This is a point that merits discussion, as the question of uniform rules in Israel and abroad gives an interesting indication regarding the potential for flexibility, both in defining affiliation and on the matter of authority. Clearly, those who feel that the rules are unbendable will see no reason why a Jewish woman in Israel should be subject to different rules of belonging from those that apply to a Jewish woman in Chicago. Indeed, the position of most Israeli Jews on this question is quite unyielding. Only a small percentage (10%) feel that different rules may be applied to Jews in Israel and the Diaspora, while a large majority believe that the same rules of affiliation should be applied, and a considerable subgroup supports both the application of these rules, and the appointment of the same deciding entities to determine who is a Jew.30

Thus, a significant gap exists on this question between the actual situation (Jewish communities abroad are not, nor do they normally see themselves as, subject to Israeli decisions on matters of Jewish identity) and the situation desired by most Israeli Jews for identical rules. That is, that Jews abroad will conform to the Israeli position on this issue, or that Israelis will change their approach and adapt it to the outlooks of other communities.

The reason for this sizeable gap between the actual and the desirable might be a lack of awareness. Israeli Jews do not understand that the situation in the Diaspora leads to other rules and entails other sources of authority. The gap might, alternatively, stem from dissatisfaction with the situation. Israeli Jews actually are aware of this but feel that it is wrong. Public opinion surveys in Israel have generally found Israeli Jews to be critical of the situation of Diaspora Jewry, particularly with regard to mixed marriages and assimilation. Half of Israeli Jews see mixed marriages, which are very common among Diaspora Jews, as a significant threat to the Jewish people.31

When we look at the responses to the question about similar rules applying in Israel and the Diaspora, we must distinguish between the following different types of respondents:

• Those prepared for maximum flexibility (different rules and different decision-makers), who constitute a relatively small minority.

• Those who would allow flexibility with regard to authority but not with regard to the rules (different decision-makers only), who constitute the majority.

• Those who feel that full uniformity is required on the rules and the deciding authorities in all Jewish communities (a third of all who responded to the question).

It is of course not certain that the respondents to this specific question brought a high level of awareness to it, on whose basis firm conclusions could be drawn about their exact intentions. However, even an instinctive tendency to demand uniformity of rules, and often at the decision-making level, attests to a desire for a definition of Jewishness whose degree of uniformity is relatively high. This tendency is discernible also in another question, one pertaining to the idea of different degrees of Jewishness, which could potentially mean flexibility of definition, as opposed to a binary definition of Jewishness that would mean inflexibility (Jewishness with clear boundaries). On this question, there is a clear majority (70%) who deny the possibility of partial Jewishness or of being Jewish to a certain degree, and effectively assert that membership in the collective must be full membership if it is to be considered membership at all.

The meaning of full membership in the collective is that the individual complies with a specific set of rules, and from that moment belongs to the collective. What these rules are is another question. Another question which we will now address, is that of whether only some of the rules need be met to ensure full membership in the collective.

Two characters presented in the survey allow us to look at the question of authority from several interesting perspectives.

1. Zamir – described as follows: “Born in Netanya, non-Jewish mother, converted by a Reform rabbi in Israel.” In this case, 61% of the respondents said he is Jewish and 33% said he is not. Understandably, those who did not regard him as Jewish are the Jews who do not accept the authority of Reform conversion (an absolute majority of the ultra-Orthodox and a large majority of the religious).

2. Tavi – described as follows: “Born in Paris, non-Jewish parents, converted by a Reform rabbi in France, married to a non-Jew.” In this case, 45% said the character is Jewish, and 45% said he is not. Among the ultra-Orthodox and the religious there was no significant difference regarding Tavi, but among the traditional and the secular a difference could be detected. For example, while nine out of ten secular respondents said that Zamir is Jewish, only seven out of ten said that Tavi is Jewish.

This gap requires an explanation, and the explanation should be sought within two main issues:

1. Zamir underwent conversion in Israel.
2. Tavi married a non-Jewish woman after converting.

It is worth noting, however, that in both cases the conversions were performed by Reform rabbis. Thus, if we assume that a Reform rabbi has the authority to convert a non-Jew and make them a Jew, then there should not, in theory, be a major gap between the two converts.

However, up to now no attention has been paid to an additional possibility that arises in the question with which we are currently concerned: Are the rules for establishing Jewishness identical in Israel and the Diaspora? Those who assume that the rules are the same will find it much harder to justify the decision to recognize Zamir’s Jewishness while not recognizing Tavi’s. This is still possible, if we establish that the marriage to a non-Jew is what made the difference.

Those who assume that the rules are different, encounter no such difficulty. They can say that they recognize the authority of a Reform rabbi in Israel, but not that of a Reform rabbi in France (it is not very hard to justify distinguishing between the two cases).

Using the numerical data, we cross-referenced this question with another one, an

the result makes it a little harder to provide a satisfactory explanation for the difference between Zamir and Tavi. Only 12% of those who say that Zamir is Jewish while Tavi is not, also say that there is no need to uphold the same rules of Jewishness in Israel and elsewhere. That is, a large majority of those who distinguish between these two converts do so despite the fact that, in theory, they believe that the rules should be identical. Theoretically, they should say that if one is Jewish then so is the other, or that if one is not Jewish than neither is the other.

This brings us back to three options:

1. This is one of the instances where the answers are inconsistent, and we should not draw conclusions from them about the respondents’ true positions.

2. Most of the respondents feel that Reform conversion is valid only when it is performed in Israel. That is, on the question of authority, they recognize only the authority of Reform conversion in Israel.

3. These same respondents feel that Reform conversion is valid so long as the convert does not marry a non-Jew. That is, on the question of authority, they recognize the authority of Reform conversion, but only if it is not followed by the establishment of a household with a non-Jewish partner.

It appears, in any case, that two conclusions may be drawn from these examples:

• Most Israeli Jews recognize Reform conversion in Israel (the fact that they recognized the Jewishness of Zamir).32

• Most Israeli Jews seem to find it easier to accept Reform conversion in an Israeli context than in a non-Israeli context.